Art Review – Wangechi Mutu @ Museum of Contemporary Art, 2013

It would be easy to breeze through this collection, which takes in collages, installations, short films and sculpture and simply be stunned into submission by her Wangechi Mutu’s maximalist aesthetic and singular style. Look closer though and there’s a strong vein of political commentary in Mutu’s work and a sense of lingering disquiet beneath the shiny veneers.

Born in Kenya, and based in the thriving contemporary art scene of Brooklyn, Mutu has compiled a completely distinctive body of work which focuses on the themes of exoticism, representations of the female body and the bloody legacy of colonialism and slavery in Africa.

The stunning large-scale Perhaps The Moon Will Save Us is a good representation of her modus operandi, being a fantastical creation which closer inspection reveals is made of mundane materials. What initially looks like scattered stars are mere holes smashed in the wall, while a sagging moon hangs over mountains made from packing tape and a makeshift fantasia of fake fur, thrift shop jewellery and ripped felt blankets.

One of Mutu’s many works to draw on African influences is Black Thrones where handsomely carved chairs sit atop empty thrones lavishly decorated with feathers, hair and horns. It’s a piece grounded both in realism and fantasy. The striking visuals have a certain fairy tale quality, but also act as a reference to the hush harbours, where African slaves would gather out of sight of their imperial overseers to congregate, practice religion and sing. The piece also touches the idea of loss in its invocation of absent royalty, a theme which runs through much of Mutu’s work.

Enclosed in a shipping container where light pierces holes in the wall, Exhuming Gluttony: Another Requiem is another visually striking, but somewhat queasy, installation where a collection of animal pelts hangs on the wall like a hunting trophy, looking out over a banquet table and a series of suspended red wine bottles which drip slowly, like blood from a wound. There is a sense the scene has been abandoned, while the tufts of hair on the floor add a gruesome touch.

Mutu is perhaps best known for her mixed media collages, and this side of her work is well represented with a number of works showcased. Feathers, plastic jewellery and explosions of glitter jostle for position with pictures of snakes, and images cut from motorbike magazines. Another highlight is Suspended Playtime, which features shiny black garbage bags rolled up into hanging baubles, in a work both sinister and playful.

The hour-long looped film Amazing Grace, which features the famous spiritual sung in Mutu’s nativeKikuyu, has a bewitching, dreamlike quality, though many of the other short films feel anonymous among such distinctive work. Overall, though, it’s a vital exhibition, from an artist literally capable of fashioning treasures out of trash and creating sobering political rhetoric out of the most abstract of mixed media collages.

Originally appeared in: Concrete Playground

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